Heritage \ Writings \

James G. Birney (1792-1857)
His final years.

Excerpts of book written by his son, William Birney. (Addded Jan., 2009).

James G. Birney and His Times, by William Birney, 1890


To his only surviving daughter (Mrs. Florence B. Jennison, of Bay City, Michigan), he gave his whole heart. When she was ten years old, the writer, passing through Detroit, where she was at boarding-school, found her on the eve of an unexpected holiday and took her with him to Bay City. She was not expected. We reached our father's house after dark, and seeing a light in the study, tapped at the door. Florence entered first. When her father saw her, he clasped her to his breast and sobbed as if his heart would break with joy. It was the only time the writer ever saw him lose utterly his self-control. His love for the motherless little girl was one of the deep passions of his strong nature.

In the spring of 1841, he married Miss Fitzhugh, the sister of Mrs. Gerrit Smtih, and reassembled his younger children under his roof-tree. This marriage, also, was a happy one. The lady had a large property. This was secured by Mr. Birney, against her expressed wishes, to her separate use and control; and he ever after refrained from using any part of it, or doing anything in regard to it, except advising as to investments and management.

His own fortune, largely increased by judicious investments after leaving Kentucky, was mostly spent in his public career. When he returned from England in the November, 1840, he found his means so much reduced that it was necessary for him to replenish. He effected this by purchasing a large quantity of land on the Saginaw River, Michigan. Part of it is now within the limits of the flourishing Bay City. The rise in value of these lands placed him in comfortable circumstances and enabled him to convey, during his life, a moderate property to each of his children, reserving enough for his own ample support. He thought this much better than devising it to them by will. In his business arrangements, he was exact. His papers were drawn with legal skill and his bargains were made so clearly that differences were avoided. So far as the writer knows. Mr. Birney was never party to a civil suit, either as plaintiff or defendant. Between 1840 and 1845 he sold in small parcels, partly for cash and partly on time, some fifteen thousand acres of land in western Ohio and eastern Indiana. Many of the purchasers defaulted on the deferred payments, and some had lost their bonds for title; but he had duplicates of the papers, and the whole business was adjusted without complaint on the part of the debtors. He was a generous creditor.


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In August, 1845, on the invitation of my father, I spent a few weeks with him at his home on the Saginaw River, Michigan. He was in fine health and spirits, and joined me in the sports of hunting and fishing. The rice grass on the farther side of the river was a favorite feeding-ground for ducks. Through this we worked our way in a light canoe, getting shots as the birds rose into the air. He was generally successful in dropping them just as they turned to a horizontal flight form an upward movement to clear the tall grass. When we had bagged game enough for next day's dinner he would take the paddle and speed the frail vessel homeward. At other times he would troll for large fish. In this sport a line from fifty to a hundred feet long, with a strong triple hook covered with bits of red and white flannel, is trailed behind the canoe. To this the simple muskallonge rises, seizing the deceptive bait and rushing away with it. A pull upon the line, strong enough if it were made at right angle to upset the unstable bar, shows the game is hooked. Then the battle begins. Skill and judgment are on one side, desperation and strength on the other. The man “plays” out his line and avoids all direct contests; the great fish dashed to the bottom of the river and exhausts its strength in vain efforts to free itself by flight from the barbed torment in its mouth. Then it is brought to the surface by a steady pull on the line. As it nears the canoe, its glaring eyes and great wide open red mouth garnished with double rows of sharp teeth seen amid the foam made by the flurries of its tail give it the aspect of a monster. A scoop net passed adroitly under it aids in getting it into the canoe, where it is quickly dispatched with a hatchet. Into this sport my father entered with great zest. He generally took the line while I kept the canoe in proper position, no easy task. The capture of one or two fish ended the excursion for the day. He took no more than enough for the supply of his own family. If there was a surplus it was sent to some neighbor.

Part of each day devoted to the cultivation of the garden and the labor of burning the brush and logs from a lot near the house. His tastes, expertness, and strength made these employments pleasant to him. His evenings were generally spent in his library, and were give to correspondence, study and conversation.

A favorite amusement of his was riding on horseback. He owned a pair of jet-black Canadian ponies. They were swift and moved well under the saddle. Mounted on these we galloped over the prairies, enjoying the bracing air of early morning or the breezes of the evening. On our last ride we were moving rapidly, sided by side. My father, with extended hand, was point out to me a vessel in the distant horizon making her way under full sail when a prairie chicken rose with a whirr from under the feet of his pony. The animal shied, springing to one side, and my father was thrown heavily to the ground. I dismounted and ran to him. He was already on his feet. To my inquiries he answered, “It was a bad jolt, my son, but no bones are broken.” He held my bridle while I caught his pony. Declining my assistance he remounted. The place of the accident was about two miles from home. We rode back at an easy gallop, my father making no complaint.

Two hours later he had a stroke of nervous paralysis. This was the beginning of the end. For the rest of his life, twelve years and three months, he was an invalid. Partial recoveries alternated with relapse. All that medicine could do form him as done. The best specialists in nervous diseases were consulted but were unable to effect more than partial and intermittent relief. While for several years his general health was apparently unimpaired and his physical strength little diminished, he was subject at long and irregular intervals to recurrences of paralysis or to sudden and painful affections of the digestive organs. These were so violent that for years before his death he predicted one of them would prove fatal, and his prediction proved true. Another effect of the disease was to deprive him of the power of articulate speech. His tongue refused its office. The man whose enunciation had been so distinct that his every word could be heard by thousands was unable in the more severe states of his complaint to make himself intelligible to his wife and children, or in his best condition to any except to them and very intimate friends. His only medium, except gesture, of communication with others was in writing. Even this was impracticable much of the time owing to the tremulousness of his hand, which he was unable to hold steady except by grasping the wrist with his left hand. This physical difficulty was greater or less according to the state of his nerves. In their best condition writing was for him a slow and laborious process, and his penmanship lacked the firm lines of former days; in their worst he could scarcely write his name legibly.

The news of his disability brought several of his old personal friends and some of his political supporters to his bedside. The mingled pleasure and pain to him of these visits may be imagined by the reader. He grasped each one by the hand and looked his grateful appreciation, but his answers to their kind speeches were conveyed by a deprecatory wave of the hand or a look toward one of the family which was a request to speak for him. Gerrit Smith, who was a beloved friend, had not until his visit comprehended the extent of the calamity and gave way to his feelings. My father was much moved, but a simple gesture expressed his resignation to the Divine will.

Before the winter of 1845 he had visited the Eastern cities for medical advise, and become convinced that he would never be able to speak again in public and probably never to articulate well enough for the purposes of conversation. From that time by all practicable means he made known to the members of the Anti-Slavery political party that he had absolutely and permanently withdrawn from public life, and of his friends he made the special request to prevent the offering or passage by anti-slavery conventions of resolutions of sympathy with him. He gave this matter in charge to me for Ohio, and it was not without difficulty that Salmon P. Chase, Samuel Lewis, and other leaders, were persuaded to comply with his request. From the time of his paralysis to his decease he never made or attempted to make a speech in public or attended or wrote a letter to any anti-slavery meeting or convention or signed his name to any publication of a nature to influence political action. Though often urgently requested to be present or to give his counsel in writing, he thought it best not to interfere with the men who were actively engaged in the cause. The clearness and vigor of his mind did not perceptibly diminish. In his writing intervals he jotted down his thoughts in a blank-book or wrote short articles, always anonymous, for leading newspapers. In 1850 he managed to write, a few sentences at a time, his “Examination of the Decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Case of Strader et al. vs. Graham. This was legibly copied and published in pamphlet-form with his name on the title-page. It is the argument of an able lawyer. The labor of its preparation aggravated his malady, and he finally abandoned a long cherish scheme of writing a historical work on slavery in the United States.

His interests in the anti-slavery struggle was not abated. He followed the proceedings in Congress and the course of public men on the subject. His fears that civil war would result were ripened into certainty by the outbreak of the troubles in Kansas. Deploring this as a national calamity which might have been averted by wisdom and manly courage on the part of statesmen, he thought it should be used for the suppression of the slave power and the immediate abolition of slavery; and he wrote his hope that his descendants would all do their duty when the conflict should come.

The monotony of his isolated life at Bay City was varied by frequent visits to his married sons, to Gerrit Smith, and Theodore D. Weld. About 1853, he broke up housekeeping and removed to Eaglewood, near Perth Amboy, N. J. At this place Mr. Weld had established his celebrated school, or academy, occupying for that purpose one end of an immense building. The other end and the very long central part was built in “flats.” These were occupied by the families of patrons of the school. Mr. Birney leased and furnished one of the best suites of apartments in the building and occupied it during the rest of his life. His youngest son was a pupil in the school. His surroundings in this place freshened up his life. The daily visits of his friend Weld cheered him. He attended the debates and literary exercises of the students, the Saturday evening lectures delivered by distinguished strangers, and the eloquent Sunday morning religious address by Mr. Weld. Occasionally he went to the opera or visited other places of public amusement or listened to some celebrated preacher at New York. In this mode of living he was comparatively free from the curiosity of the vulgar who wished to know to what degree his organs of speech were affected, a curiosity which he was not disposed to gratify. His attempts to articulate were reserved for his family and very intimate friends, and with them were generally for the purpose of discovering whether he was improving or not.

Under his affliction his temper became more genial. The sternness which had been contracted in the latter part of his active career disappeared altogether. He took pleasure in listening to the conversation of the intelligent, the lively talk of young ladies, and the prattle of children. With these last, he was a great favorite. My children like nothing better than to have a romp with their grandfather. He understood perfectly the rare art of making himself an agreeable visitor for a long time, being considerate of the feelings and circumstances of others and with sure intuitions of the right thing to do. His daughters-in-law loved him as dearly as his sons did. He was never morose or impatient or low spirited; nor did he complain of his affliction. He controlled himself so as not to distress those who loved him. The only expression during his long malady of his desire to die was made to me as I sat by his bedside, holding his hand after one of his excruciatingly painful attacks, “I had hoped this would be the last.”

His resignation was due to his piety. The Bible was his constant companion and a part of each day was spent by him I silent prayer. But God heard him. After more than twelve years of bodily and mental suffering and anguish, in which he showed how a sincere Christian should bear affliction, his spirit was released from it earthly prison. On the 25th of November, 1857, he died at Englewood, New Jersey, surrounded by his wife, children, and friends.

James Birney's letter to Gerrit Smith. (Added Jan., 2009)

James Gillespie Birney to Gerrit Smith, October 29, 1857, in Dwight L. Dumond, ed., The Letters of James Gillespie Birney, 1831-1857 (2 vols., Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1966), 2: 1174-1175.


Eaglewood, [N.J.]

Thursday Octo. 29/1857

Dear Brother Gerrit

I was much concerned to hear that you were taken down sick in N.Y. So much so indeed that the Physicians were called in to see you and attend to you. But I hope your ailment will be of short duration and keep you but a short time from traveling on full, that noble highway which you made so beneficial to others and, I have no doubt, so successful to yourself. What is intended as benefits to others may prove to them any thing else, but no one can deprive you of the ennobling good which you must draw from meaning to bless others.

When you and Nancy last left me, I did not much expect to be here so long. I thought I could not hold out more than a few days more. But how often do we miscalculate! Here am I writing you a letter when, according to the view of Spiritualists I should have been careering through the 2d sphere, looking out for a habitation.

Many will think especially Sectarians that I will go into the other world with but slender provision for its happiness. If I do not love justice, prudence, mercy, kindness; if I am not patient, long suffering, disposed, whenever I can, to do good to my fellow man; if I do not dispense with a most liberal hand the things God has put into my power partially to bless others and relieve their wants, in fine if I am not God like in all my tempers, giving my higher nature mastery over my lower one, if I have used all the power He has given me to pull down his word and not to build it up then am I poorly prepared to enter its joys. But I cannot conceive of a great or noble character Truly so, that is not built up with the things I have mentioned and kindred ones. Are we to suppose God will condemn a Character, which makes his son our exemplar, and strives in all things to be like it; Certainly not. O no, dear Gerrit, he intends me and he intends you for even a higher and happier state of existence than you have had here. Judging from what God has done for us heretofore, notwithstanding our peevishness and fretfulness and unfaithfulness shall we at all limit his goodness to us hereafter? Yes, he is God, Gerrit, and there is none like him.

You have known that for a long time, I have lost all confidence in mere beliefs as necessary to happiness hereafter. Whether we believe in the Inspiration of the Bible – in the vicarious atonement – in the personality of the Holy Ghost appears to me a small and deceptive business. The question truly is do we do what good things the Scriptures and Christ and the Holy Ghost tell us to do?

I woke last night about 1 ½ o’clock. From my exhaustion and shortness of breath I thought time with me must soon come to an end, but my wife so managed to turn the affair that here I am. Receive my best love for yourself dear Gerrit and give it also to Nancy. Good bye.

James G. Birney

Related Pages/Notes
James G. Birney

Gen. William Birney

Notes to document:
  • James G. Birney, removed with his family to Lower Saginaw (now Bay City) about 1842, and partnered in the Saginaw Bay Company, with James Fraser and Daniel Fitzhugh, which laid out the plat for village of Lower Saginaw. At that time it comprised an area on the east bank of the Saginaw River that is approximately represented by area of downtown Bay City.
  • Miss Fitzhugh, first names is Elizabeth, whe was James G. Birney's second wife, and the sister of Dr. Daniel Fitzhugh, of Livingston Co., N.Y., who was among the first investors of property in early Michigan, and was the largest land owner in the Saginaw Valley during its early settlement period.
  • Reference to youngest son in school at Eagleswood. This is Fitzhugh Birney, born Birney's second wife Elizabeth Fitzhugh.
  • Muskellonge (meaning) a large game fish, of the pike family.
  • The full book (digitized) may be read at [Google Books]
    Birney family
    Birney, William
  • People Referenced
    Birney, Florence B. (dau.)
    Birney, James G. (subject)
    Birney, William (son)
    Chase, Salmon P.
    Fitzhugh, Elizabeth (2nd-wife)
    Lewis, Samuel
    Smith, Gerrit
    Smith, Nancy Mrs.
    Weld, Theodore D.
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City, MI
    Civl war
    Eaglewood, NJ
    New York, NY
    Perth Amboy, NJ
    Saginaw River, MI
    Slavery (anti)
    Internet References

    Gerrit Smith

    [Biography] New York History Net.
    [Article] by local author and historian, Dave Rogers, on Gerrit's connection to Bay City, MI, through his relationship with James G. Birney.
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.